Poetry as a Performance: Exploring the Culture of Spoken Word in Atlanta

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Patrons prepare for poetry night at Urban Grind, which invites performers of all levels every Thursday from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. (Photo by Kaitlyn Lewis)

By KAITLYN LEWIS and ANDREW CONNARD

Spoken word poetry culture goes far beyond writing and performing poetry. It is an interconnected community of people from many different backgrounds supporting each other as they grow into their own voices.

            ATLANTA—“Poetry is an opportunity to share your insides,” slam poet Nikki Gray said in between performances. “And it’s a safe space [here].”

Gray was the feature poet at Urban Grind Thursday, July 6. The entire café was filled with patrons who had come to Midtown for poetry night, which takes place every Thursday from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Urban Grind Café is just one of the many venues that has been brought to life through the spoken word poetry microculture in Atlanta. The microculture itself has cultivated an entire community of poets from diverse backgrounds giving a voice to those who have not yet found theirs.

Gray has lived in Atlanta for the past 22 years and has been “slamming” for the past three years. She’s currently a member of the Atlanta-based Art Amok slam team and the Positive Arts Movement, which is a group of differently talented artists who strive to make a positive impact with their work.

When Gray performs, she doesn’t shy away from talking about heavy-hitting issues like racism and sexism. She thinks it is important to use her poems to bring awareness to the problems in today’s world.

“Many of my pieces tend to be heavy,” Gray said. “At first I used to feel bad about that, but now I don’t want to discourage people—and I don’t think that’s the goal at all. But, awareness is necessary, and sometimes you can’t bury your head in the sand and look the other way.”

Other poets talk about this kind of subject matter too. In fact, most poems are about race, prejudice, poverty, politics and personal issues in the poet’s life including romance.

The Art of Spoken Word

Gray shares some of her written poetry on her social media platforms, but she says that’s completely different than spoken word, and spoken word is not the same as slam.

According to the Poetry Foundation, a Chicago-based organization that publishes the monthly Poetry magazine, spoken word is poetry that is meant to be performed. It’s characterized by rhyme, repetition, improvisation and word play.

“Spoken word, to me, is an art form,” Gray said. “So when you get up there, it’s about drawing in your audience. It’s more than speaking your piece; you’re acting piece.”

Spoken word poems may be written down, but they’re written for speech and effect.

Unlike slam, spoken word poets do not come to open mic to compete against each other; they simply come to share their work. However, Gray says some slam poets use open mic nights to test their poems and gage audiences before taking it to a slam.

Poetry night is meant for poets of all levels of experience, but there are some rules.

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Alex Ondraya performs her own poetry and is a monthly host at Urban Grind’s poetry nights. (Photo by Andrew Connard)

The main rule is to “respect the mic,” said Alex Ondraya, who hosts poetry night once a month at Urban Grind. “It’s so important that you give the artist the same energy that you want them to give you.”

The rest, Ondraya said, is to have a good time and to be open to what you might hear that night.

“I really love this space here, because it feels like a room where you’re just chatting with your friends and you can be open and honest about your emotions and what’s going on in your life,” she added.

Slam: Poetry Competition

            According to the Poetry Foundation, slam is a “competitive poetry performance” where random audience members are the judges.

A single poet or a group of poets can compete in slams, said Daryll Funn, who is the coach of the Decatur-based Java Monkey Slam Team.

Each poet or group of poets is given three minutes and a 10-second grace period to perform, he said. The poem has to be original, and the performers cannot get outside help.

Five judges are picked randomly from the audience, and they rate the performance on a scale from zero to 10, using one decimal place. The highest and lowest scores of the five are dropped. The remaining three scores are added together, and that becomes the performer’s score.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, slam originated in the 1980s and was founded by Chicago construction worker named Marc Smith, who felt that poetry readings had lost their passion. Now, Smith is an important part of the slam culture.

Funn says whenever you come to a slam, you might hear someone say, “Marc Smith,” and everyone else should respond saying, “So what?”

“[Slam is] a competition, and it’s Olympic-style,” Funn said. “The best part about it is that it’s always about getting the audience involved, so that’s the difference between just a basic performance poem and a slam.”

Competition in Georgia

Every year, National Poetry Inc. hosts national slam competitions in the United States. In 2016, the competition came to Georgia for the first time.

“I’m literally the one who brought it to Decatur,” Funn said.

Serving as the City Host Coordinator for the 2016 National Poetry Slam Festival, Funn petitioned for Decatur to be the host city for the 2016 competition. The week-long festival brought more recognition to the two slam teams in Atlanta and business to Decatur as well.

“There’s a lot of recognition as we’re trying to raise money,” Funn said. “People know who we are now. A lot of businesses in Decatur really flourished.”

He says Decatur will host every five years from now on.

A Close-Knit and Family-Oriented Culture

            “Our community in Atlanta has been very close-knit,” Funn said.

Poets from both the Art Amok and the Java Monkey slam teams participate as audience members and performers in various poetry nights around Atlanta. The Atlanta poetry community is also all-inclusive with a diverse range of poets.

“There’s a lot of open mic events in Atlanta,” said award-winning slam poet and author Theresa Davis. “We’ve had poets as young as three and as old as 96 at my nights at Java Monkey.”

Davis also explained that poetry promotes community building and understanding, and believes that poetry is critical for an art community.

“It’s social commentary,” Davis said.

The many different venues around Atlanta also all offer their own unique personalities of poets that frequent them.

“We’re always willing to share information,” Funn said. “But as performance poets, we’re always trying to test our works in front of different venues and different audiences so that we can get an idea of who liked what we do at this place, because it’s really about what sways the audience that helps us win the competition.”

One thing will always be the same across all of the different venues throughout Atlanta, and that is the inclusive and safe family-oriented environment that spoken word poetry cultivates.

“The culture here is very family-oriented,” Ondraya said. “And I say that as in not necessarily all the subject matter, because you get a range of different poets, but in a way that they’re all interconnected.”

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Patrons and passersby gather on a Sunday evening for poetry night at Java Monkey in Decatur. The café hosts poetry night every Sunday from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. (Photo by Kaitlyn Lewis)
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